Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Today marks the debut of a new feature at Cover Me, called Cover Me Q&A. We’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
For our first Cover Me Q&A question, we thought we’d pick one both basic and complex, too easy and too hard, that anyone who regularly visits this site has more than likely contemplated: What’s your favorite cover song? Here are our answers; we welcome yours in the comments section below…
When first asked to write this, I was in a bit of a quandary. Define your favorite cover song? What? How to even narrow it down?
And right during this time, in an instant, an eight-year-old boy was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings. And I saw this picture of Martin Richard and my heart just fell into my shoes. Because that was me as a kid and that same feeling still stays with me today. And really, there was no other choice but “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,” Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s tune.
As Americans, many of us look at children’s hope for peace and unconditional love as naiveté. Peace is looked at as a weakness to some, and the solution is often to out-evil evil. Anger is human, and I have certainly felt my humanity slipping away, as Lowe writes about, but the message is to never give up on leaving the caveman DNA in us behind.
Martin may have died at the age of eight, but his heart was bigger than some adults. He never even got the chance to “grow out of” that hope for peace. Hopefully, you won’t either.
Asking me to choose a favorite cover song is like asking me to choose a favorite child. Maybe harder, because I only have two kids, but there are innumerable cover songs. Instead, here is my vote for “best” cover song: Jimi Hendrix’s classic cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” Admittedly, this is not an obscure choice, designed to display my vast knowledge of the cover genre, but sometimes a classic is a classic for a reason. Hendrix takes a good Dylan song and makes it breathtaking, improving the original. And Dylan agreed.
Picking a favorite cover of all time is tough, so I opted to pick a cover that has been on heavy rotation for me over the past couple of months. Antony & The Johnsons‘ version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” is as close to perfection as any cover song can get. We all know the original to be a bumpin’ summer jam about the whirlwind of first falling in love, but Antony’s take suggests more a pang and yearning about a particular love, and as with everything he sings, it’s filled with ache and wonder. When an artist can transform a song this completely, they get a special place in my heart. I hope Antony earns one in yours, too.
A favorite song is an instinct. To know a favorite song is to know all the memories and associations that come with it, and perhaps many of the reasons it is a favorite is because of those very associations more so than the song itself. A favorite cover song, on the other hand, is all about the song. We love cover songs for different reasons – mostly because, in the case of a good one, its originality intrigues, and it elicits some sort of “Wow,” “Whoa,” or “Cool” from the listener. In the case of a great one, you can get all three.
My first wow-whoa-cool moment came when I heard the Talking Heads‘ version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” David Byrne and Brian Eno created something so strange with this cover that it stuck. It became one of those covers that ignites a ferocious debate of “Is it or is it not better than the original?” The elements are introduced one by one: first the slow and steady beating of the kick drum, next a punctuated bass line, a funky high pitched piano, and finally Byrne’s warbling tenor. He sings over the elements with command, and when his voice changes textures and keys, the instruments follow, creating a sound that is so rich and varied it evades the trappings of a traditional Talking Heads or Al Green song. Despite the version’s diversity, the cover stays true to one core element of the original: soul. The Talking Heads still brought soul, they just did it by way of pop, punk, and some funky David Byrne dance moves, as seen and heard in their performance in Stop Making Sense.
When a song has over 500 recorded versions, you wouldn’t expect that one would stand head and shoulders above the rest. But the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is so immediately recognizable that most people probably don’t know it is a cover (if you haven’t heard the original, sung by Todd Duncan, check it out here; it’s still powerful despite the old-fashioned style). Anytime I hear the song I can’t help belting out the emotional closing stanza at the top of my lungs, including during the first dance with my wife at our wedding. It’s a true classic, and I don’t think a better version will ever be made.
When you cover a song that everyone covers – your “Yesterday”s, your “All Along the Watchtower”s – you gotta go bold or go home. And few songs have seen as many interpretations as George Gershwin’s 1935 “Summertime.” By the time Billy Stewart got to it three decades later, everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday had sung it as a as torchy ballad, and you’re not gonna out-belt those gals. So with the intro of a rolled-R vocal blast, Billy Stewart took it in an entirely irreverent, uptempo direction. What seemed like blasphemy to some became a Top Ten hit, sounding like what summertime actually is – fun.
The only cover song the Talking Heads ever recorded was “Take Me to the River,” a song that “combines teenage lust with baptism…” David Byrne explained, “…not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend.”
The song makes a very strong impression right from the start, as Chris Frantz’s steady drum beat sets a noticeably slower tempo than Al Green’s original. Tina Weymouth’s hypnotic bass line kicks in next, followed by that groovy organ from Jerry Harrison; by the time Byrne’s pensive and nervous vocals begin, you know you’re a long way from the original. Then, at the bridge of the song, Byrne takes a lyrical detour from Green and emphatically pleads, “Hug me, SQUEEZE ME, love me, TEASE ME, till I can’t, till I can’t, I can’t take no more.” Listening to it, one can understand how the Talking Heads were able to make an entire career out of being slightly off-kilter from the status quo.
In the end, this is my favorite cover of all time because it manages to sound surprisingly funky and groovy, yet somehow still completely devoid of a sense of soul. Let me explain: the Talking Heads embodied a kind of nervous jerkiness that personified what my adolescence felt like – namely, a feeling of trying to look and sound cool, but having no idea about how to go about it.
It could be fairly said that Hüsker Dü‘s “Eight Miles High” was the song that taught me the impact a good cover could have. Where the opening notes of the Byrds’ original seeped under and through the doors to my mind, Bob Mould’s guitar blew those doors off their hinges. With Grant Hart and Greg Norton’s jacked-up heartbeats playing alongside him, Mould roars out the lyrics until and beyond the point where they can no longer be comprehended, sounding confused, scared, and downright furious. The song’s a very bad trip, and not in the “it’s only about our plane ride to London” sense the Byrds pretended to insist on; its visceral impact stays with me, as does the odd comfort I find in listening to Mould face these demons head-on – if he’s going to fall to them, at least I know he’s going to fall forward.
It’s a complicated thing to say what your favorite is of anything. Favorites, especially in music, are fraught with implications – answers are tailored toward the person asking the question, toward trends, toward ideas of how one wants to be perceived. Any answer that is true, though, must be a weird answer or a weird list, something a step beyond today’s so-called sincerity. It’s a question that there are multiple answers to, a concept that can’t be expressed simply. Maybe it will be something that can be delved into more deeply as time goes on, but for now I can say that this is an answer to the question, if not necessarily the answer.
Cake‘s “I Will Survive” is the song that made me first realize just what a cover could be. It’s not transformative in the manner of Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and yet it takes a classic and turns it on its head without all that much structural change. A few years ago, I was working with a musician friend of mine on a play that used the song (in the original style of Gloria Gaynor), and for the life of us, neither could remember how the song went in any way other than the Cake version. That’s the kind of cover it is, the kind that wraps itself around the roots of the original to the point of being inescapable. Or maybe that’s just the kind of cover it is for some people, but that’s certainly what it is to me.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.